PARIS – In 2040/2050, will demographers speak of “the white man’s loneliness” in the way historians once referred to “the white man’s burden” to describe the so-called “imperial responsibilities” of some European nations?
Demography is not an exact science. Countless dire predictions, from that of Malthus to that of the Club of Rome, have been proven wrong. But, according to a recent and very convincing essay published in the magazine Foreign Affairs , a dual demographic and economic trend is taking place that will result in spectacular shifts by the middle of this century. The Western world will represent only 12% of the world’s population, with Europeans reduced to 6%. (In 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, Europe was slightly more populated than China.) Economically, the West will account for around 30% of global output – a level that corresponds to Europe’s share in the eighteenth century and down from 68% in 1950.
What we are witnessing can be seen is a return to the past, with the West returning to its old place in the world before the start of China’s long process of historical decline at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The West’s long period of global dominance is ending, encouraged and accelerated by its own mistakes and irresponsible behavior. We are entering a new historical cycle, in which there will be proportionally fewer Westerners, more Africans and Middle Easterners, and – with greater relevance economically and strategically – many more Asians.
It is with these figures in mind that one must consider Barack Obama’s decision not to attend the next European-American summit that was due to take place in Madrid in May. It would be tempting to use a formula coined during the Cold War to describe the comparative evolution of the United States and the Soviet Union and to apply the notion of “competitive decline” to the relationship between the US and Europe. An America that may be undergoing a process of relative if not absolute decline chooses to ignore a Europe that in US eyes is no longer a problem compared with Asia or the Middle East, and that offers little help in finding solutions to the problems that most vex Americans.